June 4, 2017; Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
Today is a great day of celebration. A birthday party for the Church. What the Fourth of July is for America, Pentecost is for the Christianity around the world and through the ages. It is the day that we remember how we got started, how we came into being. And as we remember our origin as a community we recommit ourselves, each year, each age, to continue the tradition, to translate the faith from one generation to the next. On Pentecost we remember so that we can move forward as a Spirit filled fiery family of faith.
In fact, Pentecost was already a great day of great celebration long before Christianity was on the scene. For ancient Jewish people, this day was the great summer harvest festival. 50 days after Passover—that’s where the name Pent-ecost comes from: 50 days. People travelled from far and wide, from all around the ancient world to come to Jerusalem for that day. At that point in history, as is still the case today, there were more Jews living outside of Israel than there were actually there. So for this great summer celebration, there were many pilgrims and immigrants, thousands and thousands who came to Jerusalem for the festivities…and from the start, the theme of harvest was in the air.
Up till now, there were only a very few followers of Jesus. Last week we read in the chapter before this one that there were only about 120 members of the whole Christian Church… Until it happened! Suddenly a mighty whirlwind came down from heaven itself, a divine tornado that blew with loud noise, shaking the rafters and getting everyone’s attention. Instead of rain, this storm seemed to drop drips of fire upon the community, igniting a scene that was unbelievable to behold. These few disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and started talking. They started speaking and preaching, as the Church went public with its proclamation. In a miracle that no one could explain, those thousands and thousands of pilgrims and immigrants, who had come from all over the world, were able to hear the words of the disciples in their own native language. Today that list would sound like English and Spanish, Korean and Chinese, French and Russian, Arabic and Farsi, Cherokee and Navaho, Swahili and Afrikaans–all the languages of the world were being spoken that day. From the beginning, our Christian faith was not bound to one culture or language, but through the power of the Holy Spirit it has been a translated faith, a migrating faith, that welcomes in the uniqueness and diversity of its hearers.
This summer we will be going through the book of Genesis in our Sunday School and worship services. We with have sermons and guest speakers that will explore these pivotal and powerful stories from that first book of the Bible. Briefly, I want to point out two places where a familiarity with the book of Genesis sheds light on what is going on in this story of Pentecost. First, notice how (and who) begins all the creative activity. It is a mighty wind from heaven that rushes in over the assembled crowd. In the very first words of Genesis we hear: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” The first thing to occur in all of creation is the wind from God, the Spirit of God, moving. And it is through speech that all creation comes into being. The story of Pentecost begins with the movement of this same wind from God, the Holy Spirit, and the new community is formed through the power of words and speech. This story, the Pentecost story, is told in ways that make it very clear that make these connections very clear. The birth of the Church is nothing short than a new creation coming into being, through Spirit and word, just as the first creation.
Secondly, another story that we will read this summer is the Tower of Babel. An ancient tale about a prideful people who try to build an empire of uniformity and a tower that is so tall it will reach to heaven so that they can challenge God himself. God destroys the tower and scatters their forces. One of the results is that at that point, according to the story, all of humanity began to speak different languages. They could not understand each other. What happens in Pentecost, is a divine reversal of the Tower of Babel. Through the power of the Holy Spirit the division of different languages is transcended, the rift is being mended. What was scattered abroad is now being gathered back in together. The new community of harmony, the vast harvest of the new creation in which difference and diversity is no longer a threat to unity, but a sign of God’s miraculous creative power.
In the story of Pentecost, we see, through the lens of Genesis, that from the beginning, in the beginning, our community has been more broad and wide than we in our limited human minds could ever think possible. That from the beginning, the church has always been a family of people who don’t belong together, but whom God is nonetheless bringing together through the Holy Spirit. From the beginning and throughout the ages, the church has been made up of pilgrims, immigrants, different languages, ideologies, worldviews. Different races and classes, genders, nationalities, political parties, poor and rich, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile… United under Christ, our one Lord, who died for us all, and rose for us all, so that we could all be set free from our captivity to sin.
And there’s something else to notice about who we have been from the beginning. We have always been a kind of community that people don’t expect to see and don’t know how to handle. Notice, the description of what people are thinking and feeling as they observe this miracle of Pentecost. The scripture tells us that they were bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed. That this kind of Spirit filled family of faith could really exist is amazing and beyond belief.
And for some, it does not look like a good thing. There are those crotchety grumbling folks who just don’t get it. Heaven is literally being poured out on earth, and there are some who see it happening before their eyes and can only say, “They are filled with new wine.” “What a bunch of intoxicated fools.” There have always been some in society, in every society, who are not convinced that the kind of inclusive community that God is building is really a good thing. There are some who are scared of difference, fearful of change, and unwelcoming of the harvest of God’s new creation. They’ve always been around. Those folks who think we’re just drunk. Drunk with the wine of our age. When the church pushed for change in the era of the Civil Rights movement, there were some who thought we were just drunk with the wine of socialism or communism…labels that were far too easily cast on opponents. When the church today seeks to bridge the many division in our world there are some who are quick to label us as drunk with the spirits of pluralism, or tokenism, diversity for diversity sake. They pretend to remember the good old days (a few decades ago) and forget that there never really have been days altogether good. The church has from the beginning, been challenged and condemned by those in power who could not celebrate the new creation that God was calling into being. Fear of welcoming in those who are different has gone to the extremes of genocide or ethnic cleanings or acts of terror. Think of the Nazis or the KKK claiming to act in the name of the Christian faith, no better than radical religions terrorists today claiming to act in the name of other faiths.
As a wise preacher once said, “People fear difference, otherness, the strangeness of the stranger. But the real threat lies not in the differences that God has woven into all parts of creation, including humanity. The great danger lies in any group’s lust to power over others, its insistence that its identity alone reflects God’s nature and God’s way, its demand that the otherness of others be erased from the pages of history or from the face of the earth.”  We have seen that story of fear played out in the pages of history and in each news cycle today.
But instead, from the beginning, the Christian Church has been called to be a community that is not bound to fear. A family that knows no boundaries of race or language. All nations, all people are being called into the harvest of the New Creation. From our beginning, the Spirit has empowered and enabled the Church to speak and translate it faith in fresh ways for new ears to hear.
On this day of celebration, as we remember where we came from, as we retell the story of Pentecost, the birth story of the church, may we be reminded of who we are called to be today. May we be reminded that the church’s job is to welcome in all people, to proclaim the truth that we are all created in God’s image together, that we are all redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection together, that we are all empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in communion with one another amidst all the differences that God has created.
May we remember the good news that we are a part of harvest of the New Creation being gathered in by our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ, to whom be all honor and glory, now and forever.
 Michael Jenkins, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, 18.